Neuse, Smith, or both?; Kemp's #DadPower

April 3rd, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- At the start of Cactus League play, and Kevin Smith appeared to be two players possibly contending for the same job. But as Opening Day gets closer, denying either man a roster spot is a near impossibility for the A’s.

Friday’s 12-4 victory over the White Sox encapsulated how close this semi-competition has become. Slotted back to back in the starting lineup, both infielders had two-hit days, highlighted by a sequence in the third inning that saw Neuse follow Smith’s three-run home run onto the left-field berm at Camelback Ranch by clearing that same berm with a mammoth shot of his own.

Entering Saturday’s eventual 11-11 tie with the Rockies, Neuse was batting .333 (9-for-27) with a team-leading three homers, two doubles and four RBIs. Once a top prospect in the A’s organization who was seemingly blocked at the Major League level by stars Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, Neuse rejoined the club after he was claimed off waivers from the Dodgers in March.

With the Two Matts gone, Neuse's path to an everyday role is much clearer.

“There’s some confidence at the plate right now,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said of Neuse. “You can see it in his pitch selection. His at-bats. Defensively, he’s made all the plays. He is more athletic than I think he was when he was here before.”

Not far behind from Neuse in production is Smith, who crushed another homer in Saturday’s 11-5 loss to the Rockies at Hohokam Stadium, this time a two-run blast to left-center. In 14 games, he’s batting .324 (11-for-34) with three home runs, two doubles and a team-high 10 RBIs.

Part of the package of players acquired from the Blue Jays in exchange for Chapman last month, Smith, who is now ranked Oakland’s No. 16 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has quickly adapted to his new surroundings.

“Kevin has done a nice job,” Kotsay said. “He had success last year with Toronto in Triple-A. I think Toronto most likely had plans for him to be in the big leagues this year. I’ve been excited about watching Kevin the last 14 days.”

So do the A’s have to choose one or the other? Not exactly.

Working in favor of both players is their positional flexibility. Neuse and Smith have often had the chance to each crack the starting lineup this spring by alternating time around the infield, Neuse mostly at third and second and Smith at third and shortstop.

“Kevin and Sheldon both provide some versatility on the infield,” Kotsay said. “They’ve shown they can make plays. Kevin’s played three spots out there. Sheldon’s been back and forth. Both of them provide that valuable versatility we talk about.”

Kemp flexes Dad power
It took a few weeks, but finally saw his new #DadStrength kick in as he launched a leadoff homer to begin Saturday’s game.

“Felt good just to get my foot down on a changeup,” Kemp said of his first homer this spring. “In Spring Training, it feels good to just put some good swings on things.”

Kemp and his wife, Michelle, welcomed their first child, McKenna, into the world on New Year’s Eve. Now a bona fide #GirlDad, Kemp arrived at Spring Training with a custom pair of neon yellow Nike cleats with “McKenna” etched onto the sides.

The new kicks might just be giving him a boost at the plate, as he’s now hitting .370 (10-for-27) with a homer, six doubles and a triple in nine games.

The strong performance this spring comes just before he enters a season in which he’s in line for an everyday role for the first time in his career, projected to be Oakland’s starting second baseman and primary leadoff man.

“You wait for an opportunity like this because you’ve been doing it in the Minor Leagues,” Kemp said. “I’ve pretty much led off my whole career, so I know what it takes. The more you see pitches, the better your eyes are going to do. I’m just excited to get going with this team.”

Of course, Kemp also has something even more special to play for now.

“I feel like you have a better perspective on life when you have a kid,” Kemp said. “You might go 0-for-4 or have a bad game. But whenever you see your kid, it just lights up your whole world.

“This season, a lot of it is going to be dedicated to her. I feel like I just want to go even harder for her.”